Thursday, November 4, 2010

Why expensive wines taste better: Psychology 101

I have a bachelor's degree in psychology, which isn't useful occupationally unless I want to work as an orderly in a prison psych ward.

What it is useful for is understanding some basic underpinnings of behavior, such as why critics don't like your favorite wine, and how wineries get away with charging $500 a bottle.

Have you ever noticed that no fans ever complain about lousy music concerts, yet critics frequently give them poor reviews? Are critics just curmudgeons?

Maybe, but there's a psychological principal at work that's also in effect every single time you buy even a glass of wine.

It's called "cognitive dissonance." I'll try to explain it the way I remember it from my undergraduate days.

There was an experiment in which college freshmen were asked to spend two hours doing a very boring task; putting round pegs in round holes, if I recall correctly.

They were divided into three groups. Some people were paid $20 (this was a lot of money back then). Some were paid $1. And some were not paid at all, but were told they were volunteers. All were told their payment (or non-payment) before they started pegging.

Afterwards, everyone was asked to rate the enjoyment of the task.

Which group do you think said it was the most fun?

I suppose I should make you scroll down or something, to delay the surprise.


OK, here's the answer: The group that was paid $1 found the task most pleasurable. And the group that found it the most boring were the people paid $20.

Why? The answer is "cognitive dissonance," which is the tension of holding two irreconcilable thoughts at the same time.

The task was, objectively, boring. People who were paid $20 could easily explain to themselves why they did it: they wanted $20. They rated the task as the most boring. People who were volunteers could tell themselves they did it to advance science. They found it less boring than the $20 group, but still somewhat boring.

But people who were paid only $1 couldn't explain to themselves why they spent two hours putting round pegs in round holes. Their brain held two dissonant thoughts: "This task is dull" and "I'm only getting $1 for it." The second statement could not be changed. So the brain modified its belief about the first. People decided they were having fun; otherwise they would be fools for agreeing to do it.

You can probably already see how this applies to wine appreciation. But I'll spell it out.

If you're paying for wine -- or food, or concert tickets, or a Caribbean cruise -- your brain knows the price. And you know you're not stupid. So if M.I.A. sounds off-key, your brain can change its evaluation to "charmingly spontaneous."

But the critic sitting in the back row didn't pay for the tickets. He's there to do a job, and his brain knows that. If the concert is bad, that doesn't make him a fool for going.

Think about this: How often do you like the warmup act at a concert? Much less often than the main act, right? Maybe the warmup acts really are much less good -- but also, your brain knows this band is not the reason you paid $60 for these tickets.

I get a lot of free wine, and I pay for wine frequently also. Even though I'm aware of cognitive dissonance, I still think I'm more likely to give the benefit of the doubt to a so-so wine I order by the glass in a restaurant over a wine I taste in a professional setting. I'm paying for it, I'm no fool, it can't be THAT bad.

There are several implications here:

1) Why do fans of a wine (Kendall-Jackson Vintners Reserve Chardonnay, for example) like it more than critics? Simple: they're paying for it.

2) The more money the wine costs, the more powerful the effect of cognitive dissonance. You can freely diss Two Buck Chuck, but that overripe $60 Syrah? It must have some good points. Many Napa Valley vintners understand the implication of this: Charge more, and while the wine might be difficult to sell, people who do buy it will like it more.

3) Why does Robert Parker give higher scores to wines than other critics? To his credit, he is well-known for paying for a lot more wines than any other critic. He chooses what to pay for, he doesn't taste blind, and I submit that even for a man whose palate is as consistent as anyone in the business, cognitive dissonance is at work.

4) Why does wine taste better in the tasting room? There are other factors at work as well, but consider this potential dissonance: "I drove out of my way to get here and chose this winery over its neighbors. Plus I paid a $10 tasting fee." Cognitive dissonance is a good motivator for every tasting room to charge a modest fee. (Sorry, consumers.)

5) Why don't professional critics rush to embrace funky, expressive wines, especially those in niche categories? We don't have to; we don't have the cognitive dissonance of "I paid $12.99 for this no-added-sulfite 'organic wine' and it smells like feet." Mmm, feet.

6) How do the Bordeaux first growths get away with those outrageous release prices -- over $500 a bottle for some? In Hong Kong, people are thinking in Cantonese, "I paid $900 for this wine. And I am no fool. This is so worth it." Cognitive dissonance knows no language barrier.

One last point: You've been reading my blog now for maybe 3 minutes, instead of drinking wine or looking at online porn or calling your loved ones or eating dark chocolate. Think of all the great ways you could have spent that 3 minutes.

Isn't this the most interesting blog you've ever read? Tell your friends. They're no fools either.


  1. Great read, love this take on the psychology of paying for wine. Sounds like a slightly different way of looking at "anchoring" by price point.

    One conclusion I'm not sure I agree with, though, is critics receiving samples being capable of greater objectivity. It really depends on the person. Some folks might feel beholden to the winery. Others who pay might say, this is $X, I can't be stupid to buy this. And still another group might think, this is $X, it better effin' perform up to a certain standard.

    Your 2nd bullet point is a great example of why, even blind, cheaper and more expensive wines should be tasted in the same flight. I know that if a flight has all cheap wines, I'll have a certain expectation. Ditto for expensive flights.

  2. Very good points, Cabfranc. Wine competitions struggle with whether to lump all price points together. Makers of expensive wines hate it when they do, because they don't want their $150 Cab to lose to a $9 wine. But those are the most eye-opening results from blind tastings.

  3. Perhaps you can help me understand the psychology of my tendencies. I conduct a lot of private wine tastings for small groups. Invariably, the wines taste better to me when I am leading a tasting for a group, than any other time. If it helps, I get paid $50 per hour and I select the wines, which are usually $10-$25. Any thoughts?

  4. Kent: That's cognitive dissonance at work. If you had a mediocre wine, your brain would have two thoughts: "this wine is mediocre," and "I chose this wine for this group and I am a wine expert." Only the first can change.

    (FYI, I know well the sinking feeling when something I chose for a group is not as wonderful as I hoped.)

  5. Great article. I minored in Psych, and love the way you've applied the principle of Cognitive Dissonance to wine evaluation.

    I think we have a reverse effect that happens on us. We buy 95% of the wine we review and when we have a David vs Goliath price competition, we're happy to see the underdog win. What is the explanation for that?

    It's our own money we're spending, and we'd prefer to see our "expensive tastes" validated. Is that overtaken by a desire to see value wines pushed to the forefront over wines that are based on PR & hype?

    Perhaps we just love skewering some sacred cows.

  6. WCVR: Do you taste blind? If not, you may be running into another psychological principle, "confirmation bias." But I suggest you might be somehow skewing the competition, probably unwittingly, for the underdogs to win because that's what you want to happen.

    Speaking from San Francisco after the World Series, gotta say there's nothing wrong with rooting for the underdog.

  7. We do taste blind, although since there's only two of us, we'll likely know the region/variety being tasted, and also the price range. It's a conscious decision on both our parts to blind review three Washington State Cabs out of our cellar, so that's the facts we'll know, although we both have a good idea of what's in our cellar.

    Another factor for us is that living in Vancouver, BC, wine is exorbitantly expensive after our 123% Government import taxes. So, we have a lot of locally produced wine that is over-priced as import price points are high to begin with.

    I'd venture that our sensitivity to pricing, both locally and for imports, is what makes us happy to see a value wine win.

  8. Now I'm sad... you just reminded me that I could be looking at porn instead of your blog... unfortunately, I'm at work today, so you're a sad substitute for midgets doing naughty things with lime jello.

  9. We have an old saying, it is called the Arthur Johnson rule. At wine dinners or offlines it is always asked which was your WOTN. Invarialby each person votes for the wine that they brought. They paid for it, cellared and developed an emotional attachment to the wine. So they can't bear to admit that their's was not the best. What you say makes perfect sense and the Arthur Johnson rule reinforces it.

  10. That made for very interesting reading. Certainly gives us thought regarding what we charge for with certain things, eg cellardoor tastings. I may be misreading, but from our perspective, it seems better for us to be charging that not to as this encourages people to spend more on the wines, be more positive regarding the whole experience and rave about the wines to others.

  11. Mark: I'll bite, who's Arthur Johnson?

    Mountford: You're reading it right. It pains me a little to say that, because I like to think of myself as a consumer advocate.

    Try an experiment in the tasting room -- try telling some people a wine is $15, then others $25. Control the conditions as best you can and see what happens.

    I'm so sorry, consumers. I suck.

    Pig-parts guy: I guess it depends on your preference. There are some who prefer me to Jell-O (TM). I'm going to stay away from the differently heighted in this comment.

  12. Thanks for the interesting read

  13. All the points in the article make perfect sense, except for one. And that is about the tasting fee.

    I am completely opposed to being charged a tasting fee. I visit select wineries to find new and interesting wines. My expectation is that the winery will appreciate my visit and engage in thoughtful conversation in order to make me a customer. The cost of the wine I taste is what other industries call "sales & marketing expense". I am very happy to taste the wine but don't expect me to pay for the experience.

    Last trip my wife and I visited Lamborn Winery over on Howell Mtn. Mike and Terry Lamborn spent several hours with us talking and tasting wine. Their friendliness made the experience, and the wine (cognitive dissonance?) very enjoyable. Needless to say, we bought several cases and do so every year.

    Contrast that to an unnamed winery in Sonoma. My wife and I were the only people in the tasting room and the woman doing the pouring was a misery. She showed no interest in us and did not even try to make the wine or the experience enjoyable. Yes, I paid a tasting fee but will never buy their wine - ever.

    So, for my wife and I, paying a tasting fee results in a negative experience right off the bat. Let's just say the fee leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

  14. I know you didn't bring it up, but there was the famous study where several wine tasters were given three Cabernet samples - they were told the first wine was $8 a bottle, the 2nd wine was $18 a bottle; and the third wine was $75 a bottle. The tasters overwhelmingly preferred the $75 bottle of wine. Problem was, it was all the same wine from the same bottle. Now, that is real cognitive dissonance!

    And disclaimer here, as a producer of some wine now and again (very small production), I think when people come to the tasting room, they have "an expectation" that they are going to like or dislike the wine - it depends on so many perceptions - did they like the drive up; are they on a tour bus; or a private wine tour; has the tour operator/private driver built up their expectations (i.e., you will love this wine). So, not only is cognitive dissonance at work, there is enough psychology involved to keep a team of pshrinks busy... In most cases the expectation is positive so a tasting room really has to be an awful experience for the tasters not to like the wine (and that is another subject entirely).

    But thanks, great post!

    PS: Not attempting to be anonymous, but Google was being difficult and wouldn't let me log in!

  15. I think that a slightly different explanation for the phenomenon of preferring expensive wine is that you often appreciate a wine to a degree proportionate to the attention you devote to it. When you have some reason to expect a wine to be special (e.g., bottle age, highly recommended, price, etc.), you probe it more thoroughly and usually turn up some subtleties that you would have missed in a more cursory evaluation of something like KJ chard. It may be that you conjure those subtleties in an effort to minimize cognitive dissonance in the way you describe. But it is also possible that those qualities actually exist in the wine, and heightened attention springing from heightened expectations led to their revelation.

  16. Rich: I remember the Cab test. That's confirmation bias (hmm, another post?) Per awful experiences in tasting room -- it happens a lot more than it should; read Edmaryellen's comment.

    Edmaryellen: Your experience is important but not really a test of cognitive dissonance; other factors are at work. Plus, some people are more attuned to actual experience than others. Many people will defend a bad movie they paid to see, but others will call it like they saw it (easier to do when you've spent $11 than $111.)

    Please tell everyone the winery in Sonoma County that gave you a bad experience. You will save others from the same problem.

    Several years ago I was assigned to writing tasting-room reviews. I went to one place that was arrogant and had an awful time. I visited twice -- giving them a second chance -- and the experience was the same. So I trashed them in the newspaper.

    Eventually the parent company thanked me because they weren't aware of what a bad job their tasting room was doing. Most people who came there, like you, probably just stopped buying their wine and never told anyone.

    Moral of the story: Please either tell me and my readers which tasting room it is, or quietly send the owner of the company (NOT the tasting room manager) an email. He/she might not thank you right away, but a good business person will eventually. You'd be doing them a favor.

    I'd name mine again, but this was several years ago and the company has since been sold, so hopefully the experience there is entirely different. Ironically, though, I will still probably never go back; negative associations die hard.

    Jo6pac: You're welcome, as always.

  17. Blake, Arthur Johnson is a long time geek from the Philly Area.
    He has had this web page for a long time.

  18. Nice post.

    It seems like the concept of cognitive dissonance, at least in this context, has everything to do with ego. People tend to default to positive self-judgement. "I'm no fool" says it all.

  19. The winery where we had a less-than-positve experience was Lambert Bridge.

  20. I was reading your article while enjoying a 2005 Napa cab and a piece of Belgian chocolate with a "Coeds Need Cash" video played on an adjacent window, and I was thinking, I should really be doing something more productive than be reading articles by wine bloggers.

    So I went back to viewing the porn.

  21. Thanks for sharing.

    "Coeds Need Cash"? So THAT'S the end result of internships becoming unpaid.

  22. Blake,

    Thanks for another stimulating post. No doubt cognitive dissonance is at play, but I believe the phenomenon another reader pointed out which you described as confirmation bias is a far larger factor in wine tasting and buying (it is also known as the brand effect).

    One quibble, however: I think, rather than any psychological factor, the occasional gap between critic scores and commercial success (e.g. KJ Chard) is due, in part, to biological taste preference. That is, people who are drawn to the profession of wine-tasting have unusual palates. For example, they tend to enjoy tannins. Many consumers (average or perhaps, in a different segment) have difference taste perceptions and experience the wine differently. This biological effect changes very little over time, so for many well-off, experienced wine drinkers, they still prefer (on a blind basis) wines not typically rated highly by critics.

  23. Not only did I spent three minutes reading your blog, now I am spending more time leaving a comment. I got your point though. I never have and never will spend $500 on a bottle of wine. I worked to hard to earn that $500. Besides I know its not really worth that much. But then some people have more money than brains and it gives them bragging rights to show that $500 bottle to their 'friends'.

  24. MediumRare: It's fair to say that critics of anything -- wine, theater, automobiles -- have a number of factors that separate their taste preferences from "civilians." Cognitive dissonance is probably the largest, though, especially for critics of expensive products.

    Wilf: Thought experiment for you. If you won $200 million in the lottery tomorrow, would you start drinking $500 wines? Because that's how much money some of these people have.

    I don't know how many $500 wines I would drink under the circumstances, but I do know that consumption of tete-de-cuvee Champagne would spike upward sharply in the Gray household.

  25. That last sentence made the whole article worth it. Awesome. (It would have been worth it anyway....but my out loud belly laugh that woke my dogs made it even better...)

  26. Great post. For more on this check out Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely ( He is an MIT behavioral economist who does a similar experiment with beer. His book offers wonderful insights into how humans think and how we defy logic, even when we think we don't.

  27. To W. Blake Gray,

    We as yet don't have an offical tasting room, and unless people are having a small food match to wine, or it's a huge busload that wants to taste but don't buy anything, we generally don't charge.

    To Edmaryellen,

    If it was just a couple that came up to taste the wine, (as you mentioned that you do) you wouldn't be charged, as in that situation we would assume that you were up to buy, in which case what you taste is part of that expense.

    What interests us is the fact that it seems to, in some instances, be better to charge more. We certainly don't charge $500 a bottle, and are in the lucky position to not have our wines harshly criticised so it's not a case of trying to manipulate people to sell bad wine to them. But at the end of the day, the more we can encourage people to buy wine, the easier it is for us to make the wine.

  28. Even though I alternated between your post and a window with porn on it, I still thought your post interesting and worthwhile.

    I, too, have a Psych BA and a wine blog! Are we the only two?

  29. Great post!
    I want to comment only on the cost of tasting the wines (talking about the whole "wine taste" phenomena will convert a comment into a blog post :)): if your general focus is on the value wines (those which have great QPR), the more you have to pay for the tasting room access, the more detrimental it gets. I don't believe paying more for the tasting represents value, and I would think that other value-minded wine lovers will have the same take on it...

  30. Anatoli: We're not talking about rational valuation.

    Wineries won't say it publicly, but they're not all that interested in having tasting-room visitors looking to buy $10 wines.

    And if you insist on seeing it only from the consumers' point of view, and not the wineries', consider this -- visiting a tasting room to buy $10 wines is terrible value, regardless of whether or not there's a tasting fee. You can buy $10 wines at your local market without the time and expense of driving -- or flying and driving -- all the way to a winery.

  31. Blake,

    well, few points, if I may:

    1. There may be a lot of reasons to visit the winery, same as for the wine tasting - the idea is to experience the wines and extend your understanding of what you like and what you don't. Buying wine at the winery is not necessarily the end goal. Having lazy lunch with friends with the wine you like - might be.

    2. I live in Connecticut - and I use every opportunity to visit as many wineries as possible when I'm in the right area. I don't know about wineries, but visiting 5 or 6 of them and paying $10 for tasting versus $25 makes a difference to me.

    3. If I find the wine I like, and if it is reasonably priced, I usually buy it by the case. $120 makes more sense than $10.

    4. I can find something drinkable for $10 in the store, but if you can point me to the winery where I can find a good wine for $10, I will be very grateful.

  32. Anatoli: I don't want to extend this. But do consider that the wineries have a point of view and a business to run.

    The reason they have a tasting room is not for people to have a pleasant picnic lunch on their site. And while they will never publicly say this, it's not to enhance your knowledge of wine either (though it's a worthwhile secondary goal). That would be charity; tasting rooms are for-profit.

    No one who reads my blog regularly could consider me an industry shill; I'm extremely pro-consumer. But there are two sides to every transaction, and both sides get to ask, "What's in it for me?"